Heavy Artillery: Ab Ex-travaganza at the MoMA

When the Cold War ran red hot, the United States government reached for any weapon available against the “Red Menace.” It’s hard to believe today, when federal funding for the arts is so tight, but in the 1950s the powers that be used art to fight the ideological war against Communism. Looking for a way to prove that America truly stood for freedom, the American government hauled out the heavy artillery of Abstract Expressionism, the art movement that made New York City the epicenter of the global art scene. Abstract Expressionist New York, currently at the MoMA, taps into the power of that freedom to remind us of a time when art seriously mattered.

New Yorker art critic Robert Coates first used the term “Abstract Expressionism” in 1946 to describe the art of Hans Hofmann, a teacher and father figure to other artists who would fall under Coates’ new category. The MoMA bought into the movement and its leading artists thanks to the vision of then-director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Barr believed early on that Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and others belonged in a museum—his museum. More than a half century later, the MoMA shows off their prescience in this exhibition.

It’s staggering to think that everything in this exhibition comes from the MoMA’s collection. Even works as early in the history of Ab Ex as Pollock’s The She-Wolf from 1943 (shown above) grace their walls on a regular basis. Abstract Expressionist New York takes over nearly the entire museum across 25,000 square feet of gallery space. The fourth-floor painting and sculpture galleries contain 100 Abstract Expressionist paintings as well as 60 sculptures, drawings, prints, and photographs documenting the lives of the artists and the world they ruled.

Galleries on the second and third floors supplement the main attraction. Ideas Not Theories: Artists and The Club, 1942-1962 concentrates on the very real collaboration and interaction that went on, beyond just partners such as Pollock and Lee Krasner to even “rivals” such as Pollock and de Kooning. Rock Paper Scissors on the second floor playfully proves that Ab Ex spread beyond drip paintings to sculpture, printmaking, etchings, watercolors, lithography, and drawing. This segment of the overall show really demonstrates the MoMA has opened the vaults of their massive collection. This may be the only opportunity in our lifetime to see Abstract Expressionism in every form, just like the artists did back in the heyday of the movement.

We’ve grown so accustomed to accepting Abstract Expressionism as the quintessential art movement of New York, of America, of Modern Art since the 1950s. Everything that came afterwards—Pop, Minimalism, Performance—is a reaction to them in some way. Abstract Expressionist New York calls us to react, too. The force of this all out assault will knock you off your feet. When you regain your balance, you’ll know what it means to have art really matter—to have art fight for freedom not just against the art establishment, but against repression on a global scale.

 [Image: Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). The She-Wolf. 1943. Oil, gouache, and plaster on canvas. 41 7/8 x 67" (106.4 x 170.2 cm). Purchase. © 2010 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.]

[Many thanks to the MoMA for providing me with the image above and other materials for Abstract Expressionist New York, which runs through April 25, 2011.]

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why is 18 the age of adulthood if the brain can take 30 years to mature?

Neuroscience research suggests it might be time to rethink our ideas about when exactly a child becomes an adult.

Mind & Brain
  • Research suggests that most human brains take about 25 years to develop, though these rates can vary among men and women, and among individuals.
  • Although the human brain matures in size during adolescence, important developments within the prefrontal cortex and other regions still take pace well into one's 20s.
  • The findings raise complex ethical questions about the way our criminal justice systems punishes criminals in their late teens and early 20s.
Keep reading Show less

Apparently even NASA is wrong about which planet is closest to Earth

Three scientists publish a paper proving that Mercury, not Venus, is the closest planet to Earth.

Strange Maps
  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!
Keep reading Show less

Mini-brains attach to spinal cord and twitch muscles

A new method of growing mini-brains produces some startling results.

(Lancaster, et al)
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new and inexpensive way to keep organoids growing for a year.
  • Axons from the study's organoids attached themselves to embryonic mouse spinal cord cells.
  • The mini-brains took control of muscles connected to the spinal cords.
Keep reading Show less